Edited by Drew Friesen

Photo by Titus Blair on Unsplash

By Nate Dunn

    13 min. Read Time

Published January 1st, 2021

“Why people take cocaine is not the mystery. We know why people take cocaine...The mystery with cocaine is very very simple. Why don’t people take cocaine all the time until they die” -Jordan Peterson [1] 

“Habitual moderation in the indulgence of a natural appetite or passion.”[2] 

            Temperance is the virtue on which all others are predicated. Without some degree of temperance, a person is consumed and debilitated by lust, anger, or passion. This invariably leads to destruction. In order for temperance to make sense, there must be something for which to live. 

Our Desires are not Ordered Correctly - Temperance is Bridling Desire 

            It is not within the capabilities of this paper to reorder a telos. And yet, that is exactly what is necessary to create a world in which self-denial makes any sense at all. My goal then is three-fold. Firstly, I will make a case that temperance is a worthwhile pursuit. Secondly, I will make the case that not all loves are equal. Lastly, I will give a couple of practical tips for how to reorder wrong-headed telos. 
            Fortitude, prudence, and justice are the other three of what the catholic church has historically called the Cardinal Virtues. They easily strike a chord in my heart, even while they are not easily achieved or correctly and meaningfully defined. There is no part of me that naturally wants to be temperate. It is when temperance must be employed that it seems the most arbitrary. Why should I deny myself worldly pleasures even while my heart rages? The answer is that I have a different teleology than does the world. Your teleology is your end goal, your ultimate hope and love. They are inextricably linked those two, love and teleology. They are the same and they will be used interchangeably throughout this article. 
            The world tells us that we should seek happiness. That we may leave our spouse when we no longer love them. That we should cut out unhealthy people from our lives. That our first responsibility is to do what makes us happy in our careers, our relationships, and our personal lives. In a world such as this, temperate disciplines make sense only in so far as they benefit us down the line. I might diet, but only if it is to help me lose weight so I can live a better life. 

Not all Loves are Equal 

            How could it be different? Our loves produce action or we are lying to ourselves about what we love. If your greatest love is yourself, then it is only right that you should live a life that is consistent with that telos. The problem is that not all things are equally worthy of your love. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verses forty-four and forty-five, Jesus says something similar. “For each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn-bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the 
abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”[3] It is the heart, the seat of desire, from which this fruit springs. There is a hierarchy of loves, and God is at the top. People spend their lives loving themselves only to die and turn to dust. Their lives and loves end and both are wasted. 

A Worldly Defense

            I will not pretend that a Christian argument for temperance is the only one available. Indeed there are worldly and pagan arguments. Jordan Peterson is a psychologist who has made it his life work helping men and women gain control over their crumbling lives. He gives a compellingly positive assessment of temperance to the worldly person.[4] Essentially, his argument is that it is more beneficial for the individual person and for humanity as a whole to delay gratification. Temperance will allow you greater freedom, keep suffering at bay, and bring more enjoyment from life. 
            It is not for me to disagree with his assertion. It will do all of these things. My problem with his defense of temperance is that it has not moved the locus of telos. It remains within the individual or even in the race as a whole. Love of self is a lowly love. It is that pride of the garden that, as Augustine put it, curved humanity’s love in on itself.[5] This is man’s undoing, the incurvature of his love. It is the love of Narcissus, Eve, and myself. This love is no love. Christ offers this and much more when he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”[6] The focus must be moved to one more worthy. To the one who was always meant to receive our worship and the only one who can bear the weight of our sin and our love. 

A Pagan Defense 

            To merely take our telos off of ourselves does nothing if it is not placed on the one who is worthy. There are those who argue for temperance but for the purpose of worshiping false gods. This is abhorrent. It is the fatal mistake of pre-exile Judah. God himself tells Jeremiah the folly of such a mistake in the second chapter of his prophetic book, 


“Therefore I still contend with you," declares the Lord, 
 and with your children's children I will contend. 
For cross to the coasts of Cyprus and see, 
 or send to Kedar and examine with care; 
 see if there has been such a thing. 
Has a nation changed its gods, 
 even though they are no gods? 
But my people have changed their glory 
 for that which does not profit. 
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; 
 be shocked, be utterly desolate, 
declares the Lord, 
for my people have committed two evils: 
they have forsaken me, 
 the fountain of living waters, 
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, 
broken cisterns that can hold no water.[7] 


Oh how great is the sin of a misplaced love. When we place someone or something in the place of God, we are changing the fount of living water for empty, disgusting cisterns. It is temperance that clears the way for a greater love. 


A Christian Defense 

            Defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia, human appetites and pleasures “fall mainly into three classes: some are associated with the preservation of the human individual; others with the perpetuation of the race, and others still with the well-being and comfort of human life.”[8] When desire is defined this way, temperance becomes a far broader virtue. It is a call to intentionally choose who you will love and serve and to habitually show a mastery over that which would master you. 

The Telos of Temperance 

            That being said, it is not enough for us to possess mere temperance. It is not an end in itself. Our loves must be both bridled and reordered. I believe that C. S. Lewis offers us a beautiful paradigm for understanding this. This is found in an often referenced section of The Weight of Glory. I believe it is worth quoting at length here. 

“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[9]

            Earlier in the text, Lewis makes the point that we are not merely called to take up our cross. Indeed this is a call, but it is always given with a purpose, to follow Christ. To take up one's cross must have the telos of union with Christ. He is our end goal. He is our great love and wild lover. Any other reason for temperance is futile and worthless. 
            Jordan Peterson states it rather succinctly when giving instructions for overcoming addiction. In order to overcome an addictive process, “you have to find something better to do to replace it.”[10] You cannot just give up something that is bringing you some form of pleasure. Such a change will never last. You must have something better to gain. I assert that the Westminster Catechism said it most succinctly when it said that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[11] God is great and has infinitely more to offer us than does the flesh. The flesh offers destruction, God offers life. 
            Scripture is clear that there is a choice to be made. We must either serve the flesh or God.[12] There is no way to serve both.[13] Throughout the Bible, people are described as slaves to God or slaves to sin.[14] So the question is not if you will serve, but who you will serve.[15] This is because we are born a slave to the flesh and only Jesus ofters us true escape from such slavery through death to flesh rebirth in Christ. We must be made anew. Temperance is a necessary part of dying to the flesh. It is a chance to disrupt idolatry and institute proper love.


Not All Things and People are Equally Easy to Love - Jesus is Not Easy to Love 

            Jesus is not easy to serve. In the beginning, everything in us wants to take care of ourselves first. Fear leads us to loving ourselves in case no one else will. This leads us toward the futile search for pleasure. If you say you love Jesus, temperance is not an option but an order that, when followed, reorders our desires. 
            The problem with saying that we have Christ as our greatest love is that much of the time our desires and our actions are not consistent with such a claim. I believe that this is normal and the beginning stage of sanctification. 

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.[16] 

            Those to whom Paul is writing are in Christ and yet their actions do not match their love. It is here that temperance must be developed, and we can lean on the practices of the Church to give us direction. As my discipleship team leader Jon Keller used to say, “we meet because following Jesus is hard and it is easier when you are doing it with others.” 

Ritual and Habit 

            Actions form our heart. This is the observation that James K. A. Smith points out in Desiring the Kingdom, we are primarily liturgical beings and loving beings. This means that it is through ritual and habit that we reorder our love. I will put forward two disciplines to promote temperance and align our actions with a Christological teleology. 


            Traditionally, temperance has been matched with gluttony as its opposite and indeed, they are irreconcilable. Fasting and diet are great ways to build temperance and disrupt gluttony. The problem with this is that modern perversion of the human body has complicated the issue. Fasting should no longer be prescribed for everyone as a way to combat vice. For thousands of people, eating disorders and body image perversions call for a different application of temperance. 
            Fasting is not about losing weight and for some it would be unhealthy to give up food. Fasting is an offering to the Lord. It is saying through actions, “I love you, Lord, far more than I love food (or whatever else). I love you far more than I love mental clarity or strength that food gives me. I will trust you with my relationships, job, and everything else that gives me control.” Fasting has much to do with giving up control. Fasting from makeup, technology, or long work hours can be a similar sacrifice to the Lord. When we give something up, we must replace it with something better. We practice temperance to make room for spiritual disciplines. 

Reorder Your Delight by Following the Church Calendar

            We order our year with holidays. Christmas, birthdays, and summer holidays. Worldly holidays teach us to delight in presents or time off of work. The Church calendar is ordered to follow and participate with the life of Christ and celebratory events from Church history. When we exchange our worldly or materialistic holidays and celebrate instead the acts of God, it changes the way we view time and delight. 
            The season of Lent is an especially potent example of how following the Church calendar reorders our desire through the implementation of temperance. Lent is started with Ash Wednesday, a day in which we are reminded of our sin, death, and the temporal nature of the world. This is a reminder of what a correctly ordered telos should be. Over the next couple of months, the whole Church lives an ascetic lifestyle in which they give up food or fast in some other way. This gives a communal nature to fasting and temperance, making it much more feasible. In like manner, we are also participating with Christ in his forty day fast in the wilderness. Finally, after forty days of giving up, we come together to feast on Easter Day, after preparing our hearts and minds for the celebration. In this way, the Church calendar reorders our desires and places them on Christ through the virtue of temperance.



            [1] Jordan Peterson, “How to Solve Addiction Simply.” Youtube, 12 Aug. 2017, 
            [2] “Passion.” Dictionary.com (online). Accessed Dec. 30, 2020: www.dictionary.com/browse/passion.
            [3] Luke 6:44-25 ESV. 
            [4] Jordan Peterson, “How to Solve Addiction Simply.” YouTube, 12 Aug. 2017, 
            [5] Matthew Jenson,. “The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on 'Homo Incurvatus in Se.'.” Themelios, (Online). Accessed Dec. 30, 2020: www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/review/the-gravity-of-sin-augustine-luther-and-barth-on-homo-incurvatus-in se/. 
            [6] Matthew 6:33 ESV.
            [7] Jeremiah 12:9-13. 
            [8] Joseph Delany, "Temperance." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912, 29 Dec. 2020). Accessed Dec. 30, 2020: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14481a.htm. 
            [9] C. S. Lewis. “The Weight of Glory.” In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Ed. W. Hooper (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996), 25-26.
            [10] Jordan Peterson. “How to Solve Addiction Simply.” YouTube, 12 Aug. 2017, 
            [11] The Westminster Shorter Catechism. “Shorter Catechism of the Assembly of Divines.” Reformed Theology at A Puritan's Mind (Online). Accessed Dec. 30, 2020: www.apuritansmind.com/westminster-standards/shorter-catechism/. 
            [12] Joshua 24:14-15; Exodus 34:14-16. 
            [13] Matthew 6:24. 
            [14] John 8:34. 
            [15] Romans 6:16. 
            [16] Colossians 3:3-8 ESV.

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